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October 22, 2008
3 Min Read
The Computer History Museum on Tuesday night honored three legends in the industry, including Linux creator Linus Torvalds, whose operating system became the catalyst for the open source software movement that challenged traditional concepts of intellectual property.
Along with Torvalds, the museum honored at its annual Fellow Awards ceremony Jean Bartik, one of the first programmers of the ENIAC computing system that later evolved into the first stored-program computer; and Bob Metcalfe, who led the invention, standardization, and commercialization of the Ethernet local area networking system for PCs.
The new fellows were honored at a gala event at the museum that brought out many of the who's who in Silicon Valley. Rather than have the honorees give acceptance speeches, the museum showed a videotaped interview with the inventors before they came on stage to accept their awards.
Torvalds, 38, described how he worked alone on Linux for six months at Helsinki University of Technology before accepting help from other developers. "It actually took awhile before I learned to trust people," he said.
As time went on, Torvalds found people who understood what he was trying to do and were willing to contribute code to the nascent operating system that would one day challenge Microsoft's Windows in running business applications on computer servers. Key to Linux's success was the open source model used in its development.
Bartik, 83, majored in mathematics at Northwest Missouri State Teachers College and was hired in 1945 by the University of Pennsylvania to work for Army Ordnance at Aberdeen Proving Ground. It was there that the ENIAC computer was developed for calculating ballistics trajectories. She and the other "ENIAC women" developed the system's first program, which performed a trajectory calculation in 20 seconds. The time was shorter than it took for the ballistic to fall back to Earth. That took 30 seconds.
Despite their work on the trajectory program, Bartik and the other women were not invited out with the men to celebrate the success of ENIAC. "No one paid attention to the ENIAC women," Bartik said. That changed in 1986 when their accomplishments were highlighted in a column in The Wall Street Journal.
Following the ENIAC work, Bartik joined another group of programmers that helped in converting the computing system into the first stored-program computer. She was inducted in 1997 into the Women in Technology International Hall of Fame, along with the other original ENIAC programmers.
Metcalfe, 62, started his work in networking after taking a job as a graduate student at MIT. His job with MIT's ProjectMAC was to build the high-speed interface that would connect the school's minicomputers with Arpanet, the predecessor of the Internet that was developed by the Defense Department. Metcalfe took the job with MIT after Harvard refused to let him be responsible for connecting the university to Arpanet.
Metcalfe later joined Xerox PARC, the legendary computer lab that developed the first graphical user interface for the PC, "because they paid me more than anybody else," he said. It was there in 1973 that Metcalfe and David Boggs invented Ethernet, which became the standard for connecting computers over a LAN.
Metcalfe left PARC and founded 3Com, a manufacturer of computer networking equipment, in 1979. The company shipped its first Ethernet card for the IBM PC in December 1982. The inventor also is credited with Metcalfe's Law, which is a mathematical formula that shows that the value of a network increases with the number of attached nodes, such as computers, fax machines, and printers. Metcalfe said he developed the formula in order to convince skeptical customers of the value of building a LAN using 3Com's Ethernet equipment.
At the close of the ceremony, Metcalfe was the only honoree to take the stage, thanking the museum and attendees on behalf of himself and his colleagues. "Any excuse for a party, that's my motto," he said of the ceremony.
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